Divisionals rife with divisions over worth

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Those of us who have gone out of our way to avoid divisional rugby during the years of its decline - roughly speaking, since the 1991 World Cup, when it was played while the tournament was taking place - can now safely admit what a useful purpose it has been serving.

Or at least it has this year, the final one for the unlamented Divisional Championship, when a variety of circumstances combined to give it a validity it certainly never had when the England management could not make up their mind whether it was a series of trials or a genuine championship.

The South-West team who went down to an honourable 31-16 defeat by Western Samoa on a frost-bound pitch at Gloucester on Saturday night made the point. There were 21 players whom the divisional selectors could not or would not consider, though this constraint was partly the product of success, eight south-westerners having been removed to the England A squad for the Samoans' next match.

This made evaluation of the Samoans' performance a week before the match by which they will be judged, against England at Twickenham, as uncertain as some of their rugby. They were, after all, playing approximately third- choice opposition in many positions. On the other hand, this was a witheringly cold evening akin perhaps to Invercargill or Dunedin, which many of the Samoans know well, but about as far removed from Samoa meteorologically as it was geographically.

The great god of Sky TV inflicted the kick-off time on players and public and very nearly inflicted a cancellation too. Even when the Kingsholm covers came off half an hour before kick-off to reveal a playable surface no one imagined play would last any longer than half-time but, once started, there was a determination to finish and conditions hardly worsened while proceedings continued.

Afterwards it was not clear whether John Lockyer, the South-West chairman of selectors, was celebrating or bemoaning his "sacking" as he called it. The Rugby Football Union has decided to take the divisional sides under its own wing and organise them accordingly to receive touring sides and go abroad and this has been greeted with predictable hostility by the schismatic leading clubs.

But then it is the very essence of the divisions that no one can make up their mind about them. In one breath Paul Hull, the South-West captain, called himself a great fan of divisional rugby; in the next, he suggested that in the professional era clubs rather than divisions would be preferable as opposition for touring sides.

In fairness to Hull, this is less perverse than it seems. If the divisions - more specifically the Divisional Championship - are used, as this season, for developmental purposes its worth is undeniable. Not least, without it we would still be unaware of the merits of Alex King, the 20-year-old stand-off from Bristol University who makes his A-team debut tomorrow.

When it comes to touring games, though, the priority is different. One can well imagine what would have happened to this South-West side had they been playing New Zealand or South Africa rather than Western Samoa. And even for this game, the South-West selectors enquired whether two senior Bath men, Phil de Glanville and Nigel Redman, would care to turn out.

Redman had already booked a holiday. De Glanville opted out a week before sitting on the bench for England at the Test match, but anyway his credibility would not have been helped by acceptance of the invitation, not having consistently rubbished divisional rugby - even at the South-West's own press launch last month.

At least Saturday night's motley collection all wanted to play, and will greatly have benefited from the experience. They took the game to the Samoans enthusiastically enough to score the first try when Craig Yandell won a line-out and burst free of the ensuing maul, and if this example of forward efficiency flattered to deceive the division again came on strongly near the end and were rewarded with Simon Enoch's try.

Otherwise, however, the Samoans acquired more possession than has been their wont during the English leg of their tour and tried, when their numbed extremities permitted, to play a typically appealing brand of rugby. The appeal would be still greater but for the indiscipline which costs them so many penalties, for technical infringements but more especially for wild tackling.

By half-time Happy Valley Patu and the astoundingly mobile lock Mark Birtwistle had scored tries. Alan Autagavaia scored one with his first touch after replacing Darren Kellett and the Samoans brought the house down with the length-of-the-field finale which created a try for Alex Telea.

This fantastic score is one reason why England's luminaries will spend this week talking up their opponents, but the discarded England full-back for one is not deceived. Heaven forbid, but you could even imagine Paul Hull quietly wishing a home defeat, in his own best interests as it were, although having led the South-West he knows and expects better.

"I don't think it will be 50 points like everyone thinks but if England start well it could be a good score," he remarked. What will constitute a good score is a good question but in one sense - not withstanding Samoa's being twice World Cup quarter-finalists and replete with players from New Zealand - England already know they will be on a hiding to nothing.

South-West: Tries Yandell, Enoch; Drop goals Dix 2. Western Samoa: Tries Patu, Birtwistle, Autagavaia, Telea; Conversion Kellett; Penalties Kellett 3.

SOUTH-WEST: P Hull (Bristol, capt); N Beal (Northampton), A Turner (Exeter), S Enoch (Pontypridd), P Holford (Gloucester); R Dix (Harlequins), B Fenley; A Windo (Gloucester), K Dunn (Wasps), D Hinkins (Bristol), D Sims (Gloucester), C Yandell (Saracens), P Glanville (Gloucester), E Rollitt, J Pearson (Bristol). Replacement: B Stafford (Brunel University) for Dix, 66.

WESTERN SAMOA: H V Patu (Vaiala); B Lima (Marist), T Vaega (Te Atatu), K Tuigamala (Scopa), A Telea (Petone); D Kellett (Ponsonby), J Filemu (Wellington); M Mika (Otago University), O Matauiau (Moata'a), P Fatialofa (Manukau), L Falaniko (Marist), M Birtwistle (Suburbs), S Kaleta (Ponsonby), P Lam (capt), S Vaifale (Marist). Replacements: S Smith (Helensville) for Lam, 15; B Reidy (Marist St Patrick's) for Kaleta, h-t; A Ataugavaia (Suburbs) for Kellett, 70.

Referee: D Mene (Marseille).